Is This Moral Relativism?
By Steve Gillman
This is a continuation from the page, Moral
Is the following concept of beliefs as tool moral relativism?
No, but we'll get back to that in a moment.
If the various views of morality tend to converge at the level
of "right action," does it matter which moral system
we adopt? Yes, it does, but that doesn't mean we should all have
the same moral beliefs. There are better moral systems in a general
sense, but we can't say which one is better for all people at
There is a time and a place for various beliefs in a person's
life. A Christian morality may be just what a person needs at
a given time. We have all heard the stories of a person turning
her downward-spiraling life around because of this or that religious
faith. Apparently, even if we just see those beliefs as tools
(which is how we can choose to see all beliefs), those tools
were just what she needed right then. Why would we want to take
that away from her?
Now, these cases usually are more about beliefs and feelings
of redemption and love and a higher purpose, than about the specifics
of the moral code chosen. But the principle is the same. Why
wouldn't a person use whichever tool work best at the moment?
It can be dropped later in any case. This is not moral relativism,
but moral progress.
A great example of this is in a true story I read about a
young man. Since I don't recall his name, I'll call him Eddie.
He had been involved in robbery, rapes, and more, and he was
eventually sent to prison. His choices had been horrible, and
his life was miserable, but something happened to change that
in prison. He met a man who became his spiritual counselor, a
preacher for the group the "Nation Of Islam." The experience
was an awakening.
Eddie came out of prison a different man. He had self respect
and respect for others. He never returned to a life of crime,
and in fact became a well-paid journalist. However, even though
the Nation Of Islam had as he put it "saved his life,"
he did not stay with this religious organization. He saw that
their beliefs were racist, among other things (they tended to
denigrate white people). He outgrew these beliefs and so could
not be a part of this group or their philosophy.
This is a perfect example of how a religion or set of beliefs
can be tools that truly save lives even though they are not the
ultimate truth. Eddie could have felt that he "owed"
it to the group to continue espousing their beliefs, but he felt
a greater obligation to discover the truth and a commitment to
his own self development. Nonetheless, that morality did save
him at the time.
To return to the question then: Does it matter which moral
system we adopt? Yes, it does matter greatly to the individual,
and ultimately to societies (more on that momentarily), but no
we cannot say that there is one system which is right for everyone
at every moment in their lives. As outside viewers of a story
like that above, though, we can see moral beliefs that will be
better if the person continues to evolve. More specifically,
we can say that however useful the racist religious and moral
beliefs were to Eddie, it is good that he grew beyond them.
This Is Not Moral Relativism
We can see that as tools, various moral beliefs can be useful
to different people, depending on their unique situations and
level of self development. But we can also see that if each person
is to continue his or her moral development, the movement should
be towards better beliefs. What are those better beliefs? What
is that better morality?
To be blunt, we have to all say, "It is mine." If
you can't say that, why would you hang onto your beliefs for
one second more? If you are honestly seeking to better yourself
or to understand reality, wouldn't you adopt any beliefs that
you thought were closer to the truth?
That points out what is perhaps the real path of any honest
seeker of moral truth. The true seeker must be always following
the moral code that he thinks is best, but must also be continually
modifying that code as he learns more. Consider what the world
would be like if we had maintained any common moral code from
ancient times without changing it. We might still have slaves.
We might still torture animals to death to make the meat taste
better (a real practice in the past). Beliefs have to change
with changing facts and knowledge, and this is as true with moral
beliefs as with any others.
This isn't relativistic. Moral relativism takes the position
that moral or ethical propositions don't reflect objective or
universal moral truths. The view here is that there IS objective
truth and morality, but that our beliefs are only approximations
that need to be continually updated. To put it into a language
that might be better understood by god-believers, "How presumptuous
of man to think he can capture God's truth perfectly (and on
the first try) in our imperfect languages?"
Moral relativism sees moral values as applicable only within
certain cultural boundaries (cultural relativism) or in the context
of individual preferences (moral subjectivism). This view presented
here sees moral values as universal - all individuals seek their
own self interest as the highest value. And unlike extreme relativist
positions that hesitate to judge the moral acts of another person
or group, this view allows for moral judgment at least of actions.
We can clearly see that some actions are self-destructive, and
Other actions are not so clear, like when a man hurts another
for what seems to be self-interest. But the fact that there are
difficult issues doesn't invalidate the view. It does suggests
that we take a closer look at what "self interest"
really is, and change how we think about moral issues in general.
Obviously, the direction of the change I'm proposing here
is towards a morality defined by self interest. Though it arrives
at many of the same conclusions as the more altruistic moral
philosophies, it is closer to the truth in my mind. It is not
moral relativism, because it accepts that there is objective
truth and universal morality. However, it also isn't absolutist,
like many "moralities," because it doesn't assume moral
truth can be absolutely and permanently captured in a set of
words. With that in mind, lets look again at some of the problems
of the more common moralities...
Continued here: Moral Corruption
Much of this is speculative, a way to look at things from
new perspectives. I do believe in a "natural morality"
which is experienced as "conscience," and which is
universal in "normal" humans. However, the particular
ways we describe these things may evolve. In other words, don't
be surprised if I change my mind on some points here.